Restless Country Soul
Jason Ringenberg Turns Down the Flames
Like a wild Midwestern tornado, Jason and the Nashville Scorchers came roaring out of Music City in 1981, blazing a path that opened the way for a slew of cow-punk copycats that never quite matched their energy and power. Fronting the groundbreaking band was Jason Ringenberg, fresh from his Illinois farm and ready to take on the world. Over the next 10 years the Scorchers delivered a near-perfect blend of classic country and punk and created a musical movement that continues to gain legitimacy today. Those were wild, hard years, and almost two decades since he first stepped on stage, a more mature and reflective Ringenberg recalls the glory days and how he moved in a new musical direction.
"The older I get the more what we did means to me," he says. "We accomplished some pretty incredible things, maybe not commercially. The Scorchers influenced a lot of people, and that can't be taken away."
For the uninitiated, Jason and the Scorchers were probably the first band to successfully combine the energy of rock and the lyrical nuances of country. During the '80s they released five critically acclaimed albums including Fervor, ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the top 100 rock 'n' roll records and by the Country Music Association as one of the 100 greatest country records. Ringenberg balks with humility, but admits, "Nobody combined country with the ferocity we did. I don't think anybody has since."
Although the band scattered for a while in the '90s, Ringenberg released a solo album aimed at a mainstream country audience. The Scorchers then reunited for three more albums, with 1998's live double-CD Midnight Roads and Stages Seen summing up the band's history quite nicely. According to Ringenberg, "The last album was sort of a closure point. This is a new time in life for me; I bought a farm and started a family. The Scorchers are still together and we always will be. I see Warner [Hodges] and Perry [Baggs] all the time. We will get together off and on for special shows."
When Ringenberg speaks of a new time, he's not only describing his lifestyle, but also his music. While still writing rave-ups for the Scorchers, he began composing more personal and meaningful songs that simply wouldn't fit on a Scorchers album. "I was trying to write songs, not a record," he says. "The '90s was a crazy decade with the Scorchers, and during that time I was writing songs as gifts for my daughter and my wife and writing about issues that were important to me. As time went on I felt that they were pretty good songs, so I decided to make a record to please myself."
Ringenberg recorded A Pocketful of Soul and released it earlier this year on his own label, Courageous Chicken Records. Recorded in the home of Nashvillian George Bradfute, the album is a marked departure from Ringenberg's past work. "This was such an organic recording," says Ringenberg. "George has this old house, it's a musician's heaven with vintage instruments all over the place. There's lots of creativity there and we never felt like we were in a studio."
With his material stripped down to basic acoustic arrangements, Ringenberg did most of the guitar and vocals on the first take, with Bradfute filling in on various back-up instruments. Joining in was Dead Reckoner Fats Kaplin, who added his multi-musical abilities on most tracks. According to Ringenberg, "I paid Fats for playing on the album by building him a fence. It was that sort of deal throughout the whole recording process."
Ringenberg is thrilled with the response he has gotten from fans, particularly since the album is so intensely personal. "It's heartening that people find something in this record because it comes straight from Jason," he says. "Even the hardcore Scorcher fans seem to like it, but I'm sure some of them won't."
For the first time on record, Ringenberg lets his underrated writing ability carry the weight of his work. Whether singing a love song to his daughter in "For Addie Rose" or proclaiming his faith in "Under Your Command," he bares his heart and soul for the world to see. He even seems to acknowledge his own place in music history with "The Last of the Neon Cowboys," co-written with Kevin Welch, in which Ringenberg laments the downside of a musical career while firmly holding on to the pride of a job well done.
Clearly, Ringenberg is a different man than the dervish who terrorized stages for so many years. Now touring as a solo act, Ringenberg rises to the challenge of facing the audience by himself, as he says, "I don't have the Scorchers to hide behind anymore, so I have to stand on the songs." Having made his mark in a big way, Jason is just beginning to appreciate the rewards.
Jason Ringenberg plays the Star Bar, Sat., Nov. 4. Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $9. For more information call 404-681-9018.